Featuring a more competitive team attitude and a new #1 singles player, the men's tennis team got an early start to their 2004 season at the Wabash Triangular in Crawfordsville, Indiana. While the Maroons were roundly beaten by powerhouse Kenyon College, they quickly bounced back in a win over Wabash College.
In many ways, this year's team has changed significantly from the squad that went 2-8 a year ago. Of the seven players who competed in a singles match on Saturday, only three had played singles for Chicago last year. In addition, all of the doubles pairs were new as of this past weekend. The heavy turnover combined with the unseasonably early opener meant mental and physical preparation in practice was extremely important.
"The coaches have done a tremendous job in preparing us for this year. They've done a great job of separating practices into mini-units, and making sure that in two weeks' time we accomplish those goals," said fourth-year Basil Alsikafi. "That being said, I think we accomplished our goal with this first weekend to make a statement that we areand will becompetitive every time we step out onto the court."
"The main goal of these first two matches was basically to play smart and use various tactics the coaches have emphasized so far this year, such as aggressiveness and communication in doubles and matching our strengths to opponents' weaknesses in singles," said first-year Vivek Venkataraman. "This is all basic strategy, but the coaches have done an excellent job emphasizing intelligent tennis."
The result was an impressive 5-2 win against Wabash that included Venkataraman defeating fourth-year Mike Lynch 6-3, 6-2 in his NCAA debut. The addition of Venkataraman will strengthen what was already a strong #1 position for Chicago before previous top seed Jacob Reckess graduated. Strong play in the top slot will put less pressure on the other players by allowing them to compete at lower spots against easier opponents.
"Vivek will be able to compete every time he steps onto the court, which means that everyone down the line has a better chance to win as well," Alsikafi said. His performance on Saturday showed promise even in a 7-5, 6-3 loss to Kenyon third-year Borko Tesic.
The team's three returning starters, third-year Andrew McKay, second-year Bradley Sniderman, and Alsikafi, had a combined singles record of 4-12 last season but got out to a good start on Satuday, winning three of their five singles matches. The team's success will depend on them as much as on the new starters. Alsikafi's three-set 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 win over Wabash's third-year Nathan Cain gave the team more wins at the #3 position than they had all of last year.
The next tri meet in Grinnell, Iowa is not for another week, which will give the coaches more time to work on targeted drills focused on improving individual skills. Finding the right combination for the #1 doubles position, which is often the only one that counts towards the team score, will need to be a focus as both teams of McKay/Venkataraman and fourth-year Jeffery An/Alsikafi lost quickly.
The team has reason to believe that more improvement will come, especially as the players gain experience and take advantage of a rejuvenated attitude. With continued production from a variety of players, men's tennis could become one of the most-improved Chicago sports of the year.
"We're in good shape, always improving, disciplined, and looking to be smarter on the court," Alsikafi said. "Without setting hopes too high, I think the university will be surprised by the progress this team makes over those in years past."